Monday, September 17, 2007

Breast pumping and The Office

Catching up on my T.V. time has left me with a question – is public breastfeeding a feminist issue? There is a deleted scene from the 3rd season of The Office that attempts to establish a new character as being likable when she snaps “no one wants to see your udder” at a woman using a breast pump in the office common space. A television character expressing revulsion or disdain at the sight of a woman using a breast pump is a rather common gag in recent comedies – both Fox’s The Loop and NBC’s Friends had similar “funny” quips as characters express disgust at the sight of women using breast pumps. Yet, while I can understand surprise or even curiosity at the sight of a breastfeeding mother or a woman using a breast pump, the fact that revulsion at such a basic act of motherhood seems to be our societal norm strikes me as, well, a bit misogynistic. On the other hand, our society has sexualized breasts so much that the sight of a mother nursing in public might be shocking to many people. While public breastfeeding is legal in the States, we do have laws defining the revealing one’s breasts in public as indecent exposure, so it is not surprising that people see public nursing as flirting uncomfortably with a cultural taboo. So, should we be campaigning to make nursing in public more acceptable? Should restaurants that ask mothers not to nurse in public be boycotted? Or is it acceptable to ask that women seek the privacy of a restroom before nursing or using a breast pump?
UPDATE: Not surprisingly, I'm not the only one who has noticed some sexism in our nation's attitudes towards breasts and breastfeeding. Yet, I had no idea that this was such a well publicized heated debate right now. Apparently, this debate is being held not only here at SI, but across the nation at nurse-ins being staged in protest of an Applebee's restaurant insisting that a woman either cover her nursing baby with a blanket or leave the establishment.


Mächtige Maus said...

Okay...personally, I am of the mind that perhaps a nursing mother should look for a bit more privacy while out in public before breastfeeding or pumping (allow me to acknowledge that it is not always possible to locate an ideal private spot when one is about to spring a leak). Does that make me a bad feminist?

A short story for you. I was at lunch with a friend of mine several years ago. Mid-sandwich bite she whipped one out to start nursing (do you like the dramatic flair I added there? this is a short story after all!). Now I'm all for a breast as you know, but I *really* did not need to see it at that precise moment.

So, I guess I don't quite have a specific answer to the questions you posed other than to say that I can understand requests for discretion. I don't necessarily think that the request is about revulsion, per se.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Most women I have seen breast feeding in public have been very discrete and have used a small blanket over their nursing child, so I have never witnessed the 'whipping out' of a breast. But I think that your comment that you are a fan of breasts is actually at the heart of the debate.

Provoked by offensive comments made by Bill Maher in which he compared nursing a baby to the 'intimate act' of masturbation, Erin Kotechi Vest of The Huffington Post writes about the problem of men and women accepting breasts as purely sexual. The anger she expresses comes from the common attitude that a prominent feature of our anatomy is there solely to be pleasing to the beholder and that we women should shield viewers from any functional use of our breasts that might make boobs momentarily seem less sexually alluring. Although I dislike her referring to upset women as 'twittering hens' even if the expression is used ironically, she makes some good points and has me convinced.

Mächtige Maus said...

While I would never go so far as to compare nursing with masturbation, I do think a roughly similar argument can be made by using the following analogy instead...I also don't particularly want to see a man whipping out his sex organ (I swear, I exaggerate not with my whipping out comment on either front) to pee somewhere because he is also about to spring a leak.

So, the difference is on one occasion the act is being used to nourish another while the other act is being used only to relieve oneself.

Certainly I write with a fair amount of jest. However, women (or men when they are on deck...not trying to leave them out of the debate) generally go into the restroom to change a baby's diaper. Why is that act of discretion honored while the other request is considered purely sexist?

La Pobre Habladora said...

A man urinating in public leaves, well, pee in a public place. Nursing a baby, however, leaves no mess.

As for changing diapers, that is completely different. Urine is messy and poop is unsanitary, so people go into restrooms when handling those substances for reasons of cleanliness and health. Also, you need a trashcan for the messy diaper and a sink to wash-up afterwards, so utilizing a restroom makes practical sense as well. Additionally, people are always required to go into a separate facility to relieve our bladders and bowels, but not to eat. So, maybe insisting that women go to the bathroom to nurse is not anti-woman as much as it is anti-baby, a bias with which I'm much more comfortable (kidding).

Mächtige Maus said...'s my question to you at the moment then. Would you want a woman fixing to use a breast pump to go into a more discrete location to do so or is that fine to do while sitting at a restaurant table as well?

La Pobre Habladora said...

OK - if you are asking what would make me most comfortable, the woman using a cloth over the nursing child or going to a private location to use a breast pump. But I am not sure that what makes the majority (non-mothers in this case) most comfortable should always be what determines policy - governmental or corporate. Ankles being shown once made people uncomfortable too, and I sure am thankful that women no longer have to wear long skirts and high boots to protect or modesty. And I don't want to think that I have to either make my body sexually alluring all the time or keep it covered up.

Mächtige Maus said...

Look at us...two feminists going at it! :)

Here's my angle. I do not go to a restaurant for dinner so that I can sit next to someone breast feeding. It isn't a sexist notion, it isn't a point of revulsion for me, and it isn't because suddenly breasts have been taken out of the realm of a sex object for me so I am aghast. It is a reasonable expectation I feel I have a right to when I go out for dinner. In much the same way, I feel I have a reasonable expectation to go to a movie without cell phones ringing (that's being worked on), babies crying the entire time (come on...does your one year old *really* need to be watching Spiderman 3?), people talking the entire time (that is what the non-breast feeding restaurant is for). It isn't a whole lot different than non-smokers for years fighting for a reasonable expectation of a smoke free environment. Where is my boob free environment I ask of you?! :)

If a nursing mother is at a park and suddenly needs to nurse, I don't have an issue with that. There are occasions when discretion is not an option. However, a nursing mother fixing to go out to dinner knows whether or not a feeding or a pumping is going to be due so why not plan ahead for that event? No?

Hmmm...maybe I am anti-baby? :)

How come we are the only ones writing? No one else plays with us.

Agincourt said...

Okay, I agree with Maus. We have discussed this on previous occasions actually.

From my point of view, actually...I would be completely fine with someone breastfeeding at a restaurant, as long as they weren't at my table. Double standard? I suppose.

But there you have it. Voila! My very own version of Breastfeeding "Not in my backyard!".

La Pobre Habladora said...

Why the aversion, do you think? Is it because you want breasts to keep their mystique? Does your desire to stay out of close proximity with nursing women extend to women who are using a blanket so that no skin is visible?

Casmall said...

No one should be allowed to watch Spiderman 3.

Carmeleon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
La Pobre Habladora said...

Ooops, sorry kids - the above was spam, so it had to go.